What is “Genre”

What is a “genre”? Well, let’s start from the basics. It is a noun. However, unlike many of the nouns one thinks of, it can’t be sensed, as it exists in the abstract. You can’t hear romance any more than you can smell drama.  For those of you who would challenge me by quoting a time where you have done either of these things, I answer your challenge by saying that you are not actually interacting with the genre itself. Rather, you are interacting with concrete manifestations of the ideas which you associate with a genre. What’s the difference? We will definitely get to that.

From this statement, one can probably glean my definition of what a “genre” is. To me, a genre is a set of ideas which have concrete representations that trigger an associated, complementary or similar physiological response. Genres, these amalgamations of ideas, are then appropriated to categorize various pieces of media.

Please find below a figure I have constructed which illustrates how I visualize this scheme.


To verbally illustrate my point, here is an example.  An example of a genre we see often in film and literature is “thriller”. The 1982 movie Blade Runner is a film in the “thriller” genre. Based on my definition, this would imply that there are elements of the film Blade Runner which elicit physiological responses which correspond to ideas that are associated with the “thriller” genre. So starting from the genre of “thriller”, here are some associated ideas: “energy”, “speed”, “abrupt”, “stark”, “contrast”, “suspense”, “tension”.

Now we must pull from the subject material and find elements of Blade Runner which elicit physiological responses corresponding to these ideas. Some examples include: flashes of light in particularly dark scenes to create a black and white contrast, sound editing to make noises sharper and louder in moments where the film is reaching an emotional peak, rain always falls in vast quantities and with no foreseeable end, to create a feeling of constant action even in scenes when it is so dark that we can’t see actions being made by the subject of the shot, color schemes in makeup and settings designed to create stark contrasts and make elements pop out and surprising times. These elements of media, their timing and placement, are chosen for the express purpose of triggering a choir of physiological responses, and thus is are the desired ideas planted into the mind of the viewer.

So with this definition in hand, let’s address three things very quickly. The first two are relatively simple, while the third is probably the most contentious point of my definition. First, you will notice in my above “thriller” example that I say we see the genre “thriller” in film and literature. I don’t purport to be able to see ideas, and so this wording is contradictory, and yet this is wording that you will see many people use. This is how people commonly communicate their understanding of “genre”. And, in accordance with the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, I will leave it as is.

The second point to address is the idea of multi-use elements. That is, one element can be used in different ways. Remember when I mentioned that there is a difference between genre and manifestations of genre? Well, we’re addressing that now. There is a difference because a manifestation, an object, an element, is not necessarily exclusive to a genre. One thing can have many associations. For example, the color red is often used to represent evil, but it is also associated with love or lust. I really like how Lewis Bond describes it in his video on Color in Storytelling, and I highly recommend that you check it out. Anyways, this is just something to keep in mind when looking at the use of elements in media. You may just find that something you love in one movie can show up in a book being used completely different, but it hasn’t changed at all. Simply by changing the application or context, you affect the perspective of the audience.

The last point of consideration is the role of the physiological response. What is the purpose of this step? It would seem that the person creating the media has a specific reason for using a certain element, and the reasoning is tied to the ideas which compose a genre. What is this “physiological reaction” stuff about? This one is a bit of a doozy, so let’s start by going back to the scheme, shall we? So we have genre, the overarching canopy of the whole experience. And then we have the ideas associated with that genre. We know that there are elements within the media which, upon viewing, will trigger the audience to start thinking of the aforementioned ideas. The physiological response is that “thinking” or “feeling” step. While the justification given earlier in this paragraph is satisfactory from the creator’s perspective, it does not take into account the audience’s contribution. The use of the “physiological reaction” step is my way of resolving that perspective.

Why is there a need to take into account what the audience? Well, if you think about it, the answer is blindingly obvious. Genres did not exist before audiences. Genres were created as a way for audiences to group together media which gave them a similar feeling. Which is my entire argument. Genres are a convenient construction, but they are just that. A construction. The builder was the audience. How did audiences build genres? They started from their place in the scheme, the “feeling” step. They consumed media and felt similarly about some of them, and grouped them accordingly. Then, they went backwards to find out what it was about those media which made them feel that way, and then went forward and found the ideas which consolidated both the way they felt and the elements they found in the media which gave them those feelings. Of course, it was not done in such a deliberate fashion, but it would’ve gone something like that. The end result is the creation of a categorization system whereby common elements, ideas, themes etc. acted as a divider to separate and compare media. This is genre.

Phew, that sure took a while. I hope I ended up answering the question of this essay’s title, as well as the additional questions I thought people might ask, to a sufficient degree. There is just one last thing I want to say before signing off. This essay did not start off as one about “genre”. The essay I began writing, and then quickly drifted away from, was about the modern Japanese mystery. I felt that a hardy definition for “genre” was essential to studying something as complex as a… well, a genre, such as modern Japanese mystery. As such, I began writing, and soon enough I was no longer writing about what I had intended. The result is the essay you see before you. Hopefully with this framework laid out, I can write out future essays surrounding various genres without having to redo the legwork over and over. So look forward to another essay in the near future.

With that, I will sign off. If you have any comments, questions, or rebuttals, please leave them in the comments below or contact me through the information on the Get a hold of me page (link should be at the top of any blog webpage). Thanks for reading and have a great day.